Durand Fire of 1881

    There have been several well known fires during the late 19th century, including the Chicago, Peshtigo, and the Hinckley fires.  The Chicago and Peshtigo fires, as every one knows, occurred on the same fateful day in 1871.  The Hinckley Fire of  was the first of two great fires in Minnesota in 1894.  The Durand Fire of  1881 may have been a lesser known event to the world, and this may help clear up the story.

    The story starts with the lynching of Ed Maxwell on November 19, 1881. Because of this, a fortune teller made predictions of bad occurrences to come to Durand because the hanging was "an act against God and the law."  The worst fire in the history of the city broke out just over a month after a mob in Durand had lynched Ed Maxwell Williams after he had been involved in the death of the Coleman Brothers, two area law enforcement officers.                              

    It happened on Christmas Day of 1881, when the worst fire in the city of Durand's history. The fire broke out around 1:30 p.m. at the Elklor House, a large hotel that was located in the city of Durand, and with the wind out of the south, the fire quickly spread northward along River Street. The present day location would be the block between the Goodrich Furniture Store northward to about where McMahon Motors now stands.

    The flames from the fire spread across the streets so that both sides of the building were on fire. The wind carried burning roofing material onto the roofs of other buildings and it did not take long before the rest of the block was on fire.

    It spared very little in its path and efforts were made to save valuables from the buildings, but the fire spread so quickly that the most that could be saved were some papers, account books, and other items which could be carried away. One meat market owner even attempted to float barrels of pork onto the Chippewa River to save them, but they got away and were washed downstream.

    Among the major buildings destroyed in the few short hours were the Mons Anderson meat market building, the W.H. Huntington building, several harness shops, the Arkansaw Furniture Company, several general stores, and dozens of other shops including drug stores, dress shops, lawyer's offices, a confectionery store, a hardware store, two meat markets, the Odd Fellows Hall, and several houses. The last building to be wiped out was the Tarrant-Darwin's General Store, which was able to save much of the contents because it had both a back and a side door.

    The wind shifted later and probably helped to prevent the fire from spreading even further north, stopping it before it reached the Schlumpf Store and the Harvest Shop.

(Click on the photo of old downtown for a closer view)

    Whether or not is was the result of fire prediction, nobody has ever been able to determine it. Many of the spectators cast suspicion that friends' of the Maxwell's had set the village on fire to avenge the death of Ed Maxwell, but it was determined that the fire was ignited as a result of a defective fuse in the chimney that had been going for awhile before anyone had noticed, and was not the result of an evil omen.

    The fire destroyed thirty-four buildings in all of the business sections of Durand. The estimates for the damage vary , but the damage was between ninety and one hundred thousand dollars. Only about forty-eight thousand dollars of the damage was covered by insurance. The low insurance coverage was because some owners could not obtain full coverage and therefore; were uninsured because the community did not have adequate fire protection. It was not until a couple years later that the first volunteer fire department was created in Durand.

    The merchants were determined to get their businesses going again and they built temporary wooden buildings to survive the winter; some were already started in less than a week. In the spring, the blocks began to rebuild, and the business houses were substantially built of brick. This product was easily obtainable because James T. Dorchestor operated a brickyard a short distance northeast of Durand. 

    To add to injury, a week later, on New Year's Day, 1882, the Pepin County seat was moved to Arkansaw from Durand after a referendum.

    The Durand fire of 1881 was one of the most disastrous events ever to take place in the city of Durand. There is a question on whether the fire took place in 1881 or in 1882; however, the published records in the Pepin County Courier clearly indicated that the fire took place in the year of 1881.

    Now when you are thinking about the lynching of Ed Maxwell Williams, remember that there was another major event that happened in Durand in the year of 1881.


    The recent pictures were taken in downtown Durand by Mr. Rahman.

    The painting of downtown Durand in 1881 was painted by Frank S. Stewart and can be found in the Durand Community Library.

    The information was obtained from a pamphlet that was written be Duane Hunter and he received the information from The Historical and Biographical Album of the Chippewa Valley and from the History of Buffalo and Pepin County

    To read about the Chicago and Peshtigo fires,  click here...

    To read about the Hinckley Fire and more, click here...

    If you wish to go to the top of this page, click here...

    If you wish to go back to the history of Durand, click here...

    This web page was created by: Amanda Johnson and Elmer Winter in April of 1997.